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How Design Thinking Can Lead to Innovative Solutions

By Karen Sanzo

Design thinking is a creative and human-centered approach to solving complex problems. The first step in design thinking is to seek to understand the root of the problem through the lens of the user, followed by defining the actual challenge (rather than addressing a secondary or tertiary issue). From there participants in the process brainstorm ideas to solve the challenge, select an idea (or a few) to prototype, and then test out the solution before implementing at scale. At its core, design thinking is a solutions-driven and solutions-oriented process. The process focuses on action, and often design thinking is used to help solve ambiguous organizational challenges to create innovative solutions.

This powerful approach can be used for a variety of purposes, including as an organizational change methodology, an instructional tool, and a way to engage students in experiential learning activities. My use of design thinking at ODU through the Innovate Monarchs program has enabled me to connect with diverse stakeholders to bring them together to address a variety of complex challenges affecting higher education, K-12 school districts, and other organizations. Most recently, I have been working with colleagues at the Center for High Impact Practices to lead 11 design teams exploring "How might we reimagine ODU to be student-ready for African American and Latinx students." These teams are composed of students, faculty, and administrators. Design thinking enables us to explore the systems affecting student success here at ODU, understand the different parts of the system and how to address specific areas in need, and develop innovative change strategies. We also are able to identify what is working well in our system and to scale up those programs and processes across the University.

Design thinking is a part of an organizational continuous improvement process and can help us break down the traditional silos in higher education that can often impede innovation. Through this process we collectively reflect on our learning, design potential solutions, evaluate the efficacy of those ideas, and collectively grow as individuals and in our capacity organizationally. It is a messy, non-linear process that requires teams to iterate around their potential ideas, rather than implement solutions immediately. One of the strengths of design thinking is its inclusive nature. We listen to the voices of others, observe their lives in relation to the challenge, and design solutions specifically for stakeholders.

Here at ODU I have used a specific design thinking framework with the Innovate Monarchs program. Design thinking is situated within three domains - Inspiration, Innovation and Inquiry - and overlaid with a continuous improvement process.


  • Discover & Empathize - In this phase of the process we are seeking to generally understand the problem through the lens of the stakeholder. We want to understand their lives and their experiences, and help get to the root of the challenge.
  • Define - In the define phase we are moving from general understanding of the problem to more specifically the "root" of the challenge to ensure we are developing solutions to the actual problem, rather than to tangential issues.


  • Ideate - During the ideation phase we engage in a process of brainstorming to come up with any number of potential ideas to address the root challenge.
  • Prototype - This phase starts with prioritizing ideas generated in the ideate phase and selecting an idea or ideas to prototype. Prototypes can be anything from an idea mapped out on paper to the development of a program or initiative.


  • Test - Testing involves getting feedback from stakeholders and piloting the prototypes. I often use a plan-do-study-act (PDSA) model in our pilot process.
  • Implement - After studying data from our pilots we can implement our solutions across campus, while still adjust where needed through the continuous improvement process.

Innovate Mindsets

One of the key components in our Innovate Monarchs program are the ODU Innovate Mindsets. These mindsets anchor our design thinking work.

  • Innovation Is for Everyone - We are all creative problem-solvers in some way.
  • Know Your Why - Identify your personal passion and personal mission; our energy and outcomes gain meaning and strength when innovation aligns with our personal values.
  • Show & Tell - Have a bias toward action and know that action matters.
  • Radical Collaboration - The catalyst for change comes through cross-disciplinary, authentic partnerships involving a diverse array of people.
  • Empathetic & Human-Centered - The challenge is best understood through the lens of others; through empathy, we can create a human-focused solution.
  • Embrace Ambiguity - The problem is likely deeper than the surface of the challenge. Do not jump to conclusions or rest in familiarity. Be comfortable with the journey.
  • Iterate, Iterate, Iterate - We iterate because we know that we won't get it right the first time - or even the second. We need to be OK with embracing failure. Iteration allows us the opportunity to explore, to get it wrong, to follow our hunches, and ultimately to arrive at a solution that will be adopted and embraced. We iterate because it allows us to keep learning.

Dr. Karen Sanzo is a professor of educational leadership and the graduate program director for the Educational Leadership Services program. She is also the Provost's Fellow for Design Thinking and Strategic Planning.

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